Passover: Passing Over or Passing Through?
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, April 3, 2016
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our ancient Hebrew reading is from near the end of Chapter 12 in the Book of Exodus:
The time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. It was a night of watching by the Lord, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the Lord by all the people of Israel throughout their generations.
Our modern reading is an excerpt from a Haggadah that is often used in UU congregational Seder dinners:
The word Seder means order. On this night there is an order and pattern to what we do and through which we put ourselves into the experience of the Exodus; we feel the life of bondage and the joy of release; for all of us have gone through some sort of wilderness, hoping to come to a place where we can be free; we have all gone across deep waters, or through a desert, hoping to come to a common garden of good will and good works.
…the Seder is not only a retelling of the past. It is itself a new birth of freedom: the Haggadah teaches us that we, not our forebears only, are liberated from Mitzra-yim—and not only from Egypt, but from every "tight spot," every narrow place.
Every year and every generation, Passover comes as a moment of birth... Pesach came to birth when Moses, Miriam and Aaron led a whole people through the narrow canal and broke apart the Red Sea waters.
It might seem odd to a newcomer or visitor that our focus this morning is on Passover. It might seem odd that on Friday evening a number of us gathered to celebrate a Seder dinner together in our homes or in the homes of friends and loved ones. I know that seems odd to a number of my Christian and Jewish friends. The other day at the Y, someone who attends one of the more liberal Christian churches in the area asked, "So, what will you do with your congregation this week, now that Easter has passed and in preparation for the upcoming Feast of the Ascension?"
"It happens to be Passover just now, and so we'll be talking about that, about Passover," I answered. And so we might want to ask ourselves why it is important that we do.
The answer is because, even though there are several among us who might identify as Christian UUs, this is not a Christian congregation. It is because even though some among us here might identify as Jewish UUs, this is not a Jewish congregation. It is because our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition draws on all of the world's religions to find wisdom which inspires us to ethical and spiritual life, which encourages us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves, which calls us to heed the guidance of reason and to shun idolatries of the mind or of the spirit. It is because we tend to learn who we are and how to make meaning in our lives by the telling and retelling of the stories that form the foundations, not only of our religions, but of our entire culture.
And so, as this past Friday afternoon gave way to evening, the Jewish observance of Passover began. I remember my first exposure to the story of Passover. Maybe some of you had the same one. I was seven years old and in the second grade. Our entire school loaded up in a convoy of buses, and we were carted off to one of the two movie houses in my hometown of Rock Island, Illinois. Someone in the upper echelons of the hierarchy of our Catholic parish school wanted to be sure that no one would miss Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. I sometimes wonder if more recent generations have had a similar kind of experience, where they've been totally immersed in that particular religious narrative, which has played such a seminal role in the development of our Western Civilization.
The entire story leapt off the screen and was emblazoned on my mind. But there were two scenes in the movie that haunted me for a long time, even still, really. The first was when the angel of death, in the form of a shadow, passed over the Jewish homes that were appropriately marked on their doorpost with the blood of a lamb, but then went through, went into the homes of the Egyptian people. The angel was there to claim the firstborn child of each household. Except in the case of the Pharaoh Ramses’ son, you couldn't really see any of the other children die, thank goodness. But what you heard was the pain-filled, mournful wailing of all those parents discovering all those dead children. It was horrific!
In my seven-year-old mind, that just seemed so unspeakably cruel and unjust. How could God, any god, have commanded such a thing? My mind hasn't changed much on that account.
The second scene that I found so disturbing was one that I imagine has been daunting for any child who has ever seen that movie. It was when Moses, raising his miraculous staff up into the air, parted the waters of the Red Sea. Some of you will remember that the children of Israel were racing ahead of Pharaoh's army, which was following in blistering pursuit.
As the Israelites reached the safety of the other side, the enormous walls of raging water, which had defined the corridor that they'd just passed through, came crashing down on top of the soldiers, and their chariots, and their horses. All of them were lost as they were churned and crushed by the swirling deluge of water. Afterwards, of course, the Jews set out on their 40 year quest to find the Promised Land.
This past Friday night through this coming Friday, at Seder dinners in Jewish homes and in other gathering places, the Exodus story is again being told; the covenant between God and his people being reconfirmed. The ritual of the Passover Seder provides a religious vehicle in which the relationship of the Jewish people is renewed with God. Freedom is celebrated, and a path forward is re-envisioned. It's this path forward that I want to look at more closely with you this morning.
The Hebrew word Mitzrayim plays an essential role in the Exodus story. It is the name for the land of Egypt. It comes from the root metzar which means narrow or constricted. Egypt, or Mitzrayim, represents the ultimate restriction in the ancient story. In order to be free to pursue their relationship with the Creator, the Jews must pass out of that constricted land and the experience of slavery in Egypt. They must pass through the narrow, difficult place where they have been restrained.
Traversing the Red Sea is yet another difficult crossing through a narrow passage, walled by raging waters. In our reading from the Haggadah a few minutes ago, we were reminded that, "…the Seder is not only a retelling of the past. It is itself a new birth of freedom: the Haggadah teaches us that we, not our forebears only, are liberated from Mitzra-yim—and not only from Egypt, but from every tight spot, every narrow place." The truth of the Passover story may not be found in any historical record. The truth of Passover, though, is something that may well be found in each of us. At nearly any stage of our lives, there are narrow passages that await our passing.
We don't have to be Christian or Jewish. We don't have to be ardent theists or staunch atheists or agnostics. We don't have to be Unitarian Universalists, though fortunately we are. At least, speaking for myself, I surely do feel fortunate that my religious orientation encourages me to look for truth wherever I might find it. There's a whole passel of truth in a story that supports our going through narrow passages in order to arrive at some new promised land, at some new experience of freedom, at some new understanding of what it means to be a human being, living with integrity.
Is that not how it is in life? We go along doing whatever it is that we do. We pay attention or at least we try to. That's how it was for Joseph, son of Jacob, who got the Jews into Egypt in the first place. He was just going along, doing what he was supposed to do, then poof, he was in Egypt. It was many generations of slavery – 400 years later – before Moses led his people back out again, through that narrow, through that difficult, place towards freedom.
The angel of death is the only figure in the story that passes over anything. The Jewish people, representing all of us, had to pass through what was before them. What was it in the Hebrew people that enabled them to face and pass through Mitzrayim? Let's come back to that question in a bit.
In my short time here, I've had the opportunity to speak with a few of you about the darkest and most difficult years of my life. It was a period of time following a divorce that I lived through over 40 years ago. I was imprisoned, truly, by my pain and I did not think, not for a very long while, that I could survive that experience.
How about you? What have been some of the narrow places of constriction that have held you in bondage? Might they also have been about loss? Might they have been about divorce or death, about the loss of careers, or paychecks, or of something precious?
Might your narrow places have been about illness, about life-changing or life-threatening disease? Might they have been about physical illness, or mental illness, about addictive, emotional, or spiritual illness?
Might they have been for you the act of watching a loved one go through their own narrow place, and you being left powerless to help them through to their freedom? Might your Mitzrayim have been in the past, or might you be going through it at this very moment?
What is it that enables us to get through such narrow places, to get through such times? What might we learn, if we were to look at our forebears who set out across the Red Sea and then wandered in the desert for the next 40 years until they finally found their way to the other side?
Here is what I think. Here's what the story has to offer us and to every generation. In order to pass through that narrow place, that birth canal to freedom, the Children of Israel needed to have something and they needed to do something.
First, the something they had was faith. They had faith in the God of their forebears. They had faith that somehow they would get through. Now, some of us here might have faith, as they did, in the God of our forebears, and that's great. The truth is though, that I think many of us find that antiquated God to be more of a metaphor than a super action-hero figure. A metaphor is a word that represents and promotes truth; a metaphor represents something which is larger than the metaphor itself.
What truth do you place your faith in? What truth do you hold that enables you to find within yourself that which is larger than yourself? What truth do you hold that allows you to know that life is a precious gift given to you? What truth do you hold that means you need not squander your life in slavery, imposed on you by any tyrant – including yourself? What truth do you hold that gives you faith in your ability to cross through to the other side of your narrow places?
The first lesson of Passover is that we must have faith. No one can give us faith. We are part of a faith community, so that we might support one another's faith journey. But no one can give it to us. Having faith is a personal responsibility. It may not always be perfectly steadfast, but we are always in complete need of it. We do well to know what we place our faith in so that we might better practice our faith.
Second, the something that the Children of Israel did was just that: they did something. They acted! They declared an end to slavery. They packed up their homes and their families. And then with their faith, they marched out into the desert where they continued marching for the next 40 years. It takes a lot of faith to march around in the wilderness of the desert for 40 years! But that's the action they took.
This is what the Passover story tells me – have faith and take action. Only through faith and action do we stand a chance of making it through the difficult challenges, the narrow places in our lives. What are you called to do? What action awaits your initiative?
We here are a part of a faith community that is going through its own challenging passage at this moment in time. Still, we are part of a faith community so that we might support one another's actions in the world. No one can tell us what we need to do. Having faith, and taking action that is based in our faith, are personal responsibilities. We do well to know what we place our faith in so that we might better act in the practice our faith.
Amidst the story of Moses, the Pharaoh, the first Passover, and the Exodus, against the backdrop of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, within the spirit of faith and in the determination of action, I wish you Pesach Shalom, Good Passover.
May the constrictions that bind your life give way to your faith. May they be transformed by your actions. May you always find your way forward, through your narrow passages, to some new Promised Land, to some new experience of freedom, to new understandings of what it means to be a human being, living an intentional and fulfilling life. Amen.